Pilot Knob Farms: Marrying Marketing and Conservation

Pilot Knob Farms: Marrying Marketing and Conservation

Everyone loves popcorn. This very simplistic food has a way of popping into peoples’ mouths and becoming a staple snack in many lives. One farmer in Illinois works hard to keep that popcorn coming. Andrew Bowman has made popcorn along with simple ingenuity and conservation a staple on his farm. 

Bowman is a fifth-generation farmer who believes doing “more with less” is key to operating a farm that is successful both economically and in conservation. Bowman sees success as coming from the principles of diversification both agronomically and economically. 

 Photo: Kelsey Litchfield

Photo: Kelsey Litchfield

“It’s like the portfolio principle used with investing,” Bowman said. “We diversify the crops we grow to conserve our resources while maximizing their potential,” Bowman continued.

In short, the Bowmans use diversity in commodity and cash crops to create economic stability while keeping their farm focused on conserving the natural resources that allow the farm to exist.

“Sustainability is holistic,” Bowman said, “tying sustainability into production means you need diversity and efficiency. Ultimately, sustainability is about looking at every angle and implementing risk management.” 

“Profit is important to survive now; you cannot farm for free.” Bowman said.

According to Bowman, you also need good ecological, economic and agronomic practices to last and be successful farming. Getting all of these things to work together is the holistic part of the planning process. Reinvesting in each practice and the farm is critical to continue, Bowman said.

“You have to know what your goals are,” Bowman said. “There is no cookie cutter way to farm.” 

One example Bowman gives is how they have retrofitted an old planter to incorporate cover crops on a large portion of their 2,200-acre operation. Cover crops allow farmers to mitigate soil erosion during the off season and protect water quality from excess nutrient contamination. In addition, this practice helps to build soil properties and organic matter. 

The Bowmans produce commodity corn, white corn, popcorn, and soybeans. Each of these different crops allows Bowman the ability to diversify his farming practices in a way that creates a more sustainable farm.

 Photo: Kelsey Litchfield

Photo: Kelsey Litchfield

The popcorn, while a small percentage of the farm is one way he has chosen to diversify economically and agronomically. This non-commodity crop is a unique hull-less variety which he harvests, processes, packages and sells to local stores. His principle of sustainability also includes marketing his products and his practices. The popcorn allows him to balance his risk and profits and practices.

The integration of conventional and organic principles drives many of the unique agronomic decisions Bowman makes. Currently, he is looking at having some of his fields certified organic. 

“Marry the two [organic and conventional production] to get the profit and environmental benefits, and the technology advances of conventional farming,” Bowman said. 

Operating under a no-till system since the 1990s, Bowman states that they intend to keep the no-till conservation practice while using cover crops and going organic on some of the fields. Finding harmony and a sweet spot with plants is critical for this to work. The key would be to gain enough biomass to provide good weed suppression without the use of herbicides or tillage, Bowman said.

“When it comes to chemical usage, we use the less is more principle,” Bowman said. “We only spray if it is needed.” 

Bowman uses the same principles when it comes to choosing his crop varieties. Currently he uses both GMO and non-GMO crops depending on the field and predicted pest and disease issues for the year. Some fields he uses untreated seed where he does not have disease or pest issues to help with input costs. 

However, the trait that allows Bowman to marry sustainability on the farm with meeting consumer needs is how he markets his popcorn. The red and blue popcorn is hulless a trait allowing for the #NoToothpicks required slogan, which also refers to the unique type of popcorn they grow. This aspect of the popcorn allows them to focus on their consumer. The hulless popcorn as a crop has created a focus area of quality over quantity.

“We’re not getting as much yield, but we’re growing something of higher quality that is consumer focused rather than farmer focused,” Bowman said, “most traits and agronomic items focus entirely on benefits to the farmer, not necessarily the end-user.”

In his final thoughts Bowman stated that if agriculture is going to continue to feed people and be profitable as a career, we need to look at the integration of both organic and conventional practices as each have benefits. No one extreme is better than the other, Bowman said. 

Farmers also need to start learning how to market both their practices along with their crops, and show a willingness to adapt both conservation and marketing, Bowman continued.

“We have to realize that understanding the consumer will change farming,” Bowman said, “particularly, what is farmed.” 

 

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